Panerai is, without a doubt, one of the most followed brands in the industry – think Paneristi – and one of the watch manufactures with the clearest identity; remember that the Radiomir and Luminor lines found their roots in the 1930s. Being the CEO of such a company isn’t an easy task and “change” is the main enemy, even though necessary. In order to understand more about the future of the brand, we sat down with its recently appointed CEO, Jean-Marc Pontroué (who can be seen here) to discuss all things Panerai.
Frank Geelen – When did you get interested in watches? Was there a watch in the family that started things or anything like this?
Jean-Marc Pontroué – I have been working all my life in the luxury industry, mainly in fashion before moving to leather goods and accessories. Watches came rather late in my career path and I got to work on the development of the watch department for Montblanc in 2000. Then I moved to Roger Dubuis in 2011 and now I’m at Panerai. So, I’d say it’s only in the last twenty years that I’ve been in touch with the watch industry.
Only twenty years…
(Laughs) Well, in fact, I first started with watches when I was in charge of a brand, which was named Matra, a French group which then included the brands Yema and Cupillard Rième, that was owned by a well-known Japanese company. We had a license, and I remember the head of the division as the licensor was Mr Richard Mille. There I got my very first watch. Definitely, something to remember.
Was he an inspiration, when you later saw how he developed his business?
Funny story, my very first watch was a very big titanium watch associated with an explorer who is probably not known outside of France. At the time, he was the Mike Horn of the 1990s. So, it’s funny to see that today I’m doing big watches, most of them in titanium, and I happen to do a couple for Mike Horn. It’s funny to return to my very first contact with watches from thirty years ago.
Panerai is big in titanium, especially since you’re connected to adventurers and others with less ordinary jobs.
Titanium has always been part of the product and material portfolio of Panerai. It has all the characteristics to be one of the major materials used by Panerai. This year is very much about Submersibles, which is one of our lines, of course, and we use a lot of innovative materials, including titanium.
What brought you to Panerai? Of course, I know you were with Montblanc and later Roger Dubuis for a long time, all within Richemont. And now it’s Panerai.
When you join Richemont, there are a couple of very interesting and successful brands in the group spot for you and Panerai is one of them. I had never dreamed of one day being CEO of that brand, but it happened that I was approached by the group to hold the position. Of course, it’s a major privilege to be able to have it. But it’s not something I had applied for on my first day at Richemont, to become the CEO of Panerai (laughs).
Is it a dream job?
You know, the beauty of being CEO of a brand is how close you are to the inspiration and lifestyle and brand values of the brand. I have to say that Panerai is a brand that stands for masculinity, boldness and character. It’s a product that makes a statement, which you like it or not. I’m tempted to say that I’m very much in line with the brand characteristics. It’s a sportive watch brand, which is one my life specialities. I’m also very close to the community and speak to fans of the brand from 25 years ago, and to dealers who have studied the brand from its early stages. I find a lot of inspiration and have an affinity with these people.
How have your first 12 months been at the brand?
Well, when you’re already in Richemont, you’re very familiar with people and processes and have a lot of similarities in terms of the business approach between the two brands. Of course, I take into account the totally different brand positioning than my previous one. That’s what takes most of the time, to adjust yourself to new products, new price points, new projects and to different worlds.
What are the biggest opportunities and biggest challenges within Panerai?
You know, when you take over a brand of Panerai’s magnitude, it’s how you maintain the high reputability of the brand. There is no magic formula. I see that all of the hot brands have their own recipe to make it happen. If you’re a woman, if you’re a man, if you’re high-end or have open price points and so on, you have different ingredients to take into account. Ours has brought Panerai to what it is today. The brand has been one of the biggest success stories in the last 25 years.
So, on one hand, you could see it as an opportunity and on the other, a huge challenge to do it successfully.
Yeah, because it’s the same. The opportunity is to keep the brand as iconic as it is and the challenge is that we have such an iconic product. Many brands claim to have that, but Panerai is one of the brands that’s part of a league of brands that have iconic cases, iconic dials and even iconic straps. That’s something we want to keep, so it’s the opportunity to make that more known by more people. The challenge is how to keep the brand at this top level, which is today the only pure Italian watch player in the industry.
Panerai is an exception in the watch world. Most watch brands have a few hardcore collectors. But I can’t imagine any brand with a group of collectors as fanatic, dedicated and loyal as Paneristi. How is that for you as a CEO? How do you manage this aspect of the brand? It is something that could backfire as well?
First of all, when I joined the brand it was probably the first time I had to cope with this incredible phenomenon, which is to have Panerai’s big community in most of the countries we operate in. It’s my pleasure to be in touch with many in the US, because the community is very big in the US, along with Germany and China and Hong Kong, and so on. And each time I travel, I try to have a meeting with one of them, if not more. When we do a boutique opening or events, or when they do their world happening called P-Day somewhere in the world. I went last September when they did it. I try to be close to these people because I never forget that our success story, the very first days of the brand’s success story, is very closely associated with this community. They made Panerai very hot in a very short period of time.
That must be very much appreciated by that group of fans.
Yeah, I think it’s giving them justice for all the passion they’ve been giving us for many, many years. We want them to be aware of new products and projects we have. I love their opinion because they know the brand even slightly better than me. It’s been their passion from the very first day and they are 25 years ahead of me.
It would be a challenge to learn all of the reference numbers by heart!
(laughs) Which they do. They know the launch dates and quantities and price points. They know all of that.
What are your priorities for developing Panerai as a brand from where you started off? You had your first look around and thought, “Ok, I need to set some dots on the horizon for where I want to sail”.
Well, my number one approach is to make sure that the teams around the world in all of our countries, including, of course, Italy where close to half the people are working, are trained to continue making the brand a world success. Where are the talents? Where should we increase the number of talents we have to make sure that all of the challenges in retail, digital, after-sales service and distribution are well-managed for the coming ten years. So, that’s number one. Number two is how to grow the product creativity without creating new lines of products. We have divided the sitting assortment into four key lines, each of them having a dedicated target group, dedicated packaging in terms of movement, materials, dials and price points. This will occupy the next ten years as Panerai works more in-depth with each of the families, which are part of the current assortment today.
I have not heard you say, “I want to grow production or grow to a different price segment or otherwise evolve”. Are you satisfied in that perspective?
Grow meaning how to make the brand more successful. It will remain a very exclusive brand. We don’t intend to grow production, just to increase the technical content of the preciousness of the materials we have in some of our lines. We also intend to reduce the number of limited editions. So, there are colours and shapes we are now taking or will be in the coming months, which go into underlining the exclusivity of the brand.
How do you see the future of Panerai five years from now?
Well, the target in five years is to have the brand remain part of the top 20 operators in the luxury watch world. The others are also running very fast so you have to keep up with the pace. We’ll continue to have a very well-balanced brand in terms of customership. The beauty of Panerai is addressing local customership in most of the countries we operate in. While our industry is more and more touristic, we’re trying hard to capitalize on Americans in America, Europeans in Europe, Asians in Asia, Japanese in Japan, and so on. This was also done well by my predecessor. This is one of the key strengths of the brand and we’ll continue to develop the local customership that makes Panerai so powerful. We’ll remain very balanced in our distribution pattern.
My last question. If there’s only one Panerai for you to wear, which would it be?
(laughs) That is a difficult one. Well, the Sub is one of the most exciting to work with from when I first joined the brand. For me, it’s the closest to the original from the brand. It was a diver’s watch, more than 60mm, and the Submersible is the first one we had that I’d call “the civilized version.” And the BMG is unique to Panerai and the Bronzo is very much associated with Panerai. Carbotech is also very nice and a big watch at 47mm, but it’s very light. Very comfortable on the wrist. But in the end, definitely the Submersible.